Niaz Dorry, oceans campaigner, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m the cofounder of Clean Catch, a new project aimed at promoting diverse, healthy oceans by supporting the people who have historically shown themselves to be responsible stewards of the ocean — small-scale fishing communities.
What does your organization do?
Clean Catch works with and supports small-scale fishing communities that are actively advocating for and/or practicing ecologically responsible fishing. We fight against activities that undermine their efforts such as privatization of the oceans, pollution of the marine food chain, offshore oil and natural-gas drilling, and industrial aquaculture.
We hoped to begin working on funding the project this January, but we got preempted by the tsunami that put many of the fishermen I’ve been working with in peril, so instead of focusing on Clean Catch, we began raising money to put directly in the hands of the affected communities. We teamed up with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and St. Joseph’s Credit Union in Maine on the tsunami effort. It proved more fruitful than our wildest dreams. The head of the Sri Lankan organization National Fisheries Solidarity Movement told us recently that the money generated through our efforts is the only cash they have yet received.
In the post-tsunami world, I work with the fishing communities affected to fight against efforts to build hotels, fish farms, and industrial fishing operations instead of rehabilitating the fishing communities and replanting mangroves along the destroyed shorelines. And I’m working on reviving all those Clean Catch funding proposals we scrapped Dec. 26 when the tsunami hit.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
On a personal level, “mission accomplished” is when I can’t find work. Really! My No. 1 objective is to work myself out of a job.
On the Clean Catch level, “mission accomplished” is when it’s widely recognized that it takes an ecosystem to save a fish or a whale or a seabird or a dolphin or whatever.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
The pivotal point for me was the day I pulled up in front of a house in Chester, W. Va., in 1991. The house, known to the locals as the “Greenpeace House,” was owned by a local farmer, Joy Allison, who was letting a few Greenpeace campaigners stay there while working with the community to stop the building of the WTI incinerator right across the Ohio River in East Liverpool, Ohio.
The people of the region who were organizing to fight WTI renewed my faith in me and in humanity. I felt the power of true grassroots efforts, based on selflessness and goodwill rather than ego and money. As corny as it may sound, I realized people do exist who make decisions based purely on love for others. On the flip side, I saw first-hand the blinding effect of greed and power.
From the Ohio River Valley, I moved to D.C. to help manage Greenpeace’s Toxics Campaign. I thought I was going to be a D.C. regular, until Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign approached me with an intriguing idea that involved importing the community-organizing and grassroots work of the Toxics Campaign to the Oceans Campaign. In short, Greenpeace wanted me to do what no other environmental group had done before: move into a fishing community, identify common ground with ecologically minded fishermen, and organize a movement that would get us to our shared goals. I packed my bags and, sight unseen, moved to Gloucester, Mass., the oldest settled fishing port in the lower 48.
Eleven years have passed since the day the U-Haul pulled into this driveway, and I haven’t looked back once. After leaving Greenpeace in 2001, I decided to stay and continue working with the fishing community.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
The political arms of the public agencies — whether it’s the U.S. EPA or the National Marine Fisheries Service — are wreaking havoc on the very areas they are tasked to protect.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Fishermen! I didn’t know what to expect when I first agreed to work with fishing communities. But I quickly realized that as long as I was true to my beliefs and consistent in my statements, I had nothing to worry about. Today, many of my friends and neighbors are fishermen. Many of them have risked a lot to defend the positions I’ve advocated over the years.
Of course, there are fishermen who’d rather see me dead than here — and they’ve told me that to my face. Early in this work, I used to get a lot of threats. The only time I thought someone was about to follow through on their threat was at a December 2000 North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Alaska when I really thought I was going to be punched by a fisherman who was yelling at me in front of everyone. His fist was so close to my face that I thought, “This time I’m actually going to get hit.” All I could think the whole time was, “You are a tree … even if he hits you, he can’t knock you down.” Then I saw a big ring on his hand and thought, “This could hurt … but you are a tree …”
All this is par for the course, though.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
It was 1993, and I’d already moved away from East Liverpool, but continued to work on WTI. Despite mountains of evidence against the facility, questionable permits, and a recent promise from the newly elected Clinton/Gore team to shut down the facility built just feet away from an elementary school in a community of poor white and African-American people, the world’s largest toxic-waste incinerator was given permission to begin burning. I remember driving over the Ohio River that day and seeing smoke come out of the stack for the first time. I could barely breathe at the sight.
What’s been the best?
The most recent was in the aftermath of the tsunami. Fishermen I knew and had worked with in Asia were directly affected by the disaster. I sent out an email to a few friends asking them to consider wiring money to the fishermen’s accounts with a focus on Sri Lanka. The next thing I know, NAMA had set up an account at St. Joseph’s Credit Union, which had agreed to wire any money free of cost directly to the fishermen’s accounts. When I sent another email announcing the fee-free wire service, the response was amazing. People were forwarding the emails like mad. The next thing I knew, NPR called and that really got the word out about our fund.
What’s your environmental vice?
I sneak cigarettes now and then.
What are you reading these days?
I’m immersed in reading about how cooperatives can work more effectively. I chair the board of our local Cape Ann Food Co-op and am committed to helping it succeed.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I don’t really consider myself an environmentalist. I’m more of a human-rights and economic-justice activist who sees those angles in battles traditionally coined as “environmental battles.” I think once something becomes part of a “green” agenda, it tends to get pigeonholed as such, and the various nuances of the issue that might actually lead to winning a battle tend to get suppressed.
Take fisheries issues, for example. Most talk about it only as saving the oceans, and that turns off a big chunk of the population who can’t relate to that message. I’m trying to introduce a different concept: save the small-scale fishermen, because I believe they will help us save the oceans better than the alternative — factory fishing and aquaculture.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
We are too focused on single-species protection when single-species destruction is what has brought us to this point in the oceans’ demise.
Take the red, green, and yellow seafood lists. With the best intentions, they were created to tell people which fish to eat and not to eat. But the formulas that suggest one fish is healthier than another are part of the problem. Each time a fish is listed as “green” enough to eat, it becomes the next overfished species. Furthermore, some fish are listed as green simply because in a single-species context, there are more of them around. But these are often prey species that larger fish — often listed in the red column — need for their recovery.
We need a truly ecosystem-based approach to our oceans work.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Music wasn’t a big part of my life when I was 18 — I was more interested in boys, arts, and sports! Today, I find myself with an eclectic taste in music. I consider Bob Marley one of my spiritual advisers. I spent much of 2003 seeing Bruce Springsteen during “The Rising” tour with friends — we called him our “therapist.” Recently, a friend introduced me to Manu Chao, a great Spanish-French singer.
What’s your favorite movie?
I loved Black Cat, White Cat. It’s a breath of fresh air in this way-too-serious world. It’s the only movie I’ve intentionally rented more than once because I’ve needed to laugh my ass off.
What are you happy about right now?
In many ways, I’m living a dream. I spend most of my days getting paid to think and/or write about issues my heart believes in and my brain understands. I live in an idyllic location, and I work with amazing fishing communities throughout the world that grace me with their trust. Depending on the season, my breaks involve anything from pulling weeds in the garden to hiking through foot upon foot of snow. I have a circle of friends and family that support whatever craziness I get myself into, and somehow I seem to make ends meet living this way.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Silence is not a sign of weakness, so make time for some silence in your life. Things do tend to get clearer once some of the white noise disappears.